San Diego • In past matchups with San Diego State, BYU football teams loved to hear analysts say the games would be won in the trenches. After all, SDSU was annually perceived to be one of the softest teams on BYU’s Mountain West Conference schedule, a club with lots of speed and skill, but susceptible to the power game.
Obviously, these aren’t your father’s Aztecs anymore. Not since that coach as hard-nosed as his name, Rocky Long, took over in San Diego.
In building a 9-3 record this season, including a current seven-game winning streak, San Diego State pounded teams on the ground, and will hope to do the same Thursday night against BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl (6 p.m. MST, ESPN) at Qualcomm Stadium.
These old foes once played games with scores such as 52-52, 45-44 and 45-38, but Thursday’s contest figures to be in the teens, or 20s, because it pits strength vs. strength: SDSU’s powerful rushing attack against a BYU rushing defense that is ranked No. 2 in the country.
“The bottom line is the strength of their team is running the football,” said BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. “The strength of our defense is stopping the run. So that’s the battle of the game, right there.”
The Aztecs are 16th in the country in rushing, averaging 229.17 rushing yards per game, and are one of only four teams in the country that have rushed for more than 150 yards in every game this season.
The Cougars (7-5) are giving up just 84.25 rushing yards per game, and have allowed just one team to rush for more than 150 yards on them this season, No. 1-ranked Notre Dame.
The Irish put up 270 yards and wore down the Cougars in the second half, winning 17-14.
“They are going to run power, and they are going to bring it every play,” BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy said of the Aztecs. “That’s what we are looking forward to as a defense. ... They didn’t back down to Boise [State], and Boise has a good defense, so they have the mentality that they are going to try to keep with the run game and keep trying to pound it out.”
While BYU would like to forget the Notre Dame finish, it wants to repeat what happened the last time it faced a running attack even more prolific than SDSU’s. The Cougars held Georgia Tech to just 117 rushing yards in a 41-17 win Oct. 27. The Yellow Jackets (6-7) enter the bowl season ranked fourth in the country in rushing, averaging 312.54 yards per game.
The difference is SDSU is much more balanced, with quarterback Adam Dingwell having completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 767 yards and eight TDs and four interceptions since replacing injured senior Ryan Katz in the lineup.
Sophomore Adam Muema (211 carries, 1,355 rushing yards, 16 TDs) will be one of best running backs the Cougars will face this season, along with Utah State’s Kerwynn Williams and Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick.
“Yeah, No. 4 [Muema], we think he is really good,” said BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree. “On top of that, they have a really good offensive line, really physical. They all finish blocks and they are big and powerful. So I think we will have our hands full.”
Poppinga, Van Noy and Ogletree said if they can’t stop the run, San Diego State will control the clock and put too much pressure on BYU’s inconsistent offense to score in limited opportunities.
“They are going to stick with the run, and they don’t care if they are getting 2 or 3 yards a pop,” Poppinga said. “Power, power, power. That’s what they are going to run.
“They don’t care if you know. They are just going to line up and say, ‘we are going to smash your face in.’”
Strength vs. strength
Category National rank Actual
Total defense 3rd 266.3 ypg.
Scoring defense 5th 14.67 ppg.
Rushing defense 2nd 84.25 ypg.
Category National rank Actual
Total offense 57th 407.75 ypg.
Scoring offense 28th 35.08 ppg.
Rushing offense 16th 229.17 ypg.
P BYU vs. San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN